The way in which local government has responded to COVID-19 has been inspiring. Councils have proved beyond doubt how important they are as institutions and how vital local services are to their communities. The importance of local government to the country’s recovery will be even greater.
Councils have been a crucial partner of Government in supporting communities through the pandemic. Government has also recently recognised that councils (as opposed to centrally-procured contractors) – with their local infrastructure, knowledge and public health expertise – are best placed to deliver test and trace.
On 10 June, the Cabinet of Norwich City Council approved the council’s blueprint for recovery – a framework to guide the recovery of the council and the city over the next 18 months.
As we look towards recovery – with the overarching priority to protect health and avoid a second peak – we want to learn the lessons of our response and build on the opportunities it presents.
COVID-19 has forced us to change how we operate and how we deliver local services.
While some of this change has been hard, we now have the capability to work and deliver differently. This creates opportunities to build on the changes made to become a modern, flexible organisation with the potential to change its culture and improve staff wellbeing.
Our response has demonstrated the opportunities to join up more proactively across teams, with staff working towards shared outcomes rather than through specified processes and structures, and colleagues empowered to achieve objectives through greater trust and flexibility. Traditional council structures have been torn down. There is no desire to build them back up.
The creation of the Norwich Community Response Hub has shown how we can successfully build new services around the needs of residents, particularly the most vulnerable. Vital outward facing services such as housing options, tenancy management, customer services, and revenues and benefits, have transformed at pace. We want to continue that momentum and apply it to all services.
We are determined to embed and build upon the changes made, by recasting our transformation programme to learn lessons from COVID-19, with each part of the organisation empowered to look at how services can be delivered differently.
Looking towards the wider recovery of the city, we will build on work to support rough sleepers and tackle homelessness. This means transitioning people out of emergency accommodation and into sustainable housing, ensuring – through our successful multi-agency Pathway programme – that vital wraparound services, such as physical and mental health support and drugs and alcohol treatment, are in place.
Over the longer-term, we will work across sectors to develop pathways out of poverty for the most vulnerable, looking at access to training and skills and measures to move people closer to the labour market and into employment.
We are working with the retail sector and Business Improvement Districts to put in place measures to support social distancing in the city as shops, bars and restaurants open up again, to give people confidence that they can visit the city safely.
We are looking at opportunities to support the hospitality sector through more flexible licensing policies, as well as promoting sustainable transport options such as walking and cycling, with changes to the city centre layout to encourage people to leave their cars at home.
Housing and regeneration is a crucial theme of the city’s longer-term recovery.
At the heart of our approach is a commitment to maximise social housing and build more council homes, with the redevelopment of the former council depot site at Mile Cross – in the north of the city – delivering up to 200 new council homes over the next three years.
The regeneration of the former Carrow Works and surrounding brownfield site at East Norwich has the potential to be the biggest regeneration opportunity in the East of England. The council will establish a public-private partnership to develop a master plan for the site, which has the potential to deliver 4,000 new homes and 6,000 new jobs. We do all of this amid significant pressure on our own finances and that of the wider sector.
In the short-term, the Government will need to provide more funding to cover the cost of COVID-19, both in terms of additional expenditure and lost income.
Over the longer-term, Norwich will join the wider sector to lobby for a more sustainable system of council funding. This is no longer a debate about austerity, it is about ensuring that local services – more important now than ever – are funded appropriately.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of Norwich City Council